I’m Not There

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

19 March

Bob Dylan releases first album, 1962

Having dropped out of the University of Minnesota and relocated to New York City to visit the dying Woody Guthrie and break into performing, today in 1962 Bob Dylan released his first album. Eponymously titled Bob Dylan it came about after Dylan played harmonica on Carolyn Hester’s album in September 1961 and caught the eye of producer John Hammond.

Hammond signed Dylan to Columbia Records in October 1961 and within five months the album was done. It was a collection of folk standards, coffeehouse favourites plus two Dylan originals – Song to Woody (loosely based on Guthrie’s 1913 Massacre) and Talkin’ New York. The album’s personnel consisted of Dylan on vocals, guitar and harmonica, and that was it. The album failed to sell.

I’m Not There (2007, dir: Todd Haynes)

A film about Bob Dylan that uses a different actor to play the man in various stages of his career. Sounds fairly unremarkable on the face of it, the sort of thing that happens all the time. But Richard Gere as Dylan? An African-American (Marcus Carl Franklin)? A woman (Cate Blanchett)? Director Todd Haynes throws in Christian Bale, Heath Ledger and Ben Whishaw as the other three Dylans in a film whose stunt casting threatens to obscure its purpose – by adopting the freewheeling approach Haynes is trying to get closer to a character who has spent his life constantly creating and erasing his own myth.

Well that’s the puff. Constructed as a series of episodes, with a different Dylan in each, the look and shooting style changing to match, this kaleidoscopic retelling of the Dylan biography avoids the trap of serving up familiar snippets. And when it does, it refracts them, twisting them into new shapes, much as Dylan himself twisted the fairly staid forms of folk into his own vehicle for expression.
Haynes takes Dylan pretty much at his own estimation of himself – cool, smart, honest, only occasionally a monster, while the famous songs (Idiot Wind, Like a Rolling Stone, The Times They Are A-Changin’ etc) are used as a commentary on the man’s life as he lived it.

Some things really stand out – as if the multiple casting for Dylan wasn’t enough (though Todd Solondz had done something not too dissimilar with his Alice in Wonderland-esque Palindromes in 2004) – one is the way that Haynes presents the 60s as a strange, distant, other world. Which of course it is now – further away culturally than chronologically – but Haynes was among the first to put this observation on film. Another is the way that Haynes and co-writer Oren Moverman draw comparisons between the 1960s and the time of the Old West (usually, with the 1960s, it’s the Edwardians and all that Sgt Pepper militaria).

As for the performances as Dylan, take your pick. Blanchett has been praised, though she’s a touch self-conscious. But then maybe she’s meant to be; she’s playing Dylan at his most iconic – shades, skinny black suit, smart haircut, at just the moment when he became the most famous pop star in the world, an icon in silhouette. A lot of people reading this might not even realise how big he was – bigger and cooler than the Beatles. The film’s a bit about that too.

Why Watch?

  • The stunt casting
  • Play “spot the reference” – was that Jodorowsky?
  • Some great Dylan music
  • Edward Lachman’s remarkably varied cinematography

I’m Not There – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

The Messenger

Ben Foster, The Messenger


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



13 March


Henry Shrapnel dies, 1842

On this day in 1842, Major General Henry Shrapnel, British army officer, died aged 80, at his home, Peartree House, Southampton, UK.

It was he who is supposed to have invented the “spherical case” bomb, which exploded in mid-air (there is every likelihood that it was in fact a French engineer called Bernard Forst de Bélidor). A hollow cannonball filled with lead shot, it was designed to inflict massive damage on people.

Until then cannonballs had been solid and had achieved maximum impact when used against ships – it was the massive splintering of oak that caused death and injury to the sailors, rather than the ball itself.

The new device was first demonstrated at the time of the siege of Gibraltar (1779-1783) but became decisive at the battle of Fort New Amsterdam (Surinam) in 1804.

As a result of this victory, a delighted British government granted Shrapnel an annual pension. Shells made according the Shrapnel principles continued to be manufactured only until the end of the First World War, though the fragmentation resulting from the explosion of artillery shells, and fragmentation in general, has borne Shrapnel’s name ever since.




The Messenger (2009, dir: Oren Moverman)

The film that seemed designed to welcome Ben Foster into the place next to current hipster princeling Ryan Gosling – as the thin-faced Steve McQueen and Paul Newman of our time – is almost a two-hander.

Though here Foster is paired up with Woody Harrelson, to play army officers whose duty it is it convey “the message” to the next of kin of people who have died in conflict.

It’s a story told in episodes, the effects of the news registering on the faces of one hapless character after another – Steve Buscemi blurs on, Samantha Morton hangs around a bit longer – while in fact the film is subtly dealing with the effects of grief on the men who have to deliver the news, how it forces them to confront mortality at one remove, and in some way spooks them – the tough outer shell, the gallows humour.

If Foster, the war hero properly pissed off at having to run around like some grim postman, is the latest iteration of the seriously moody actor (Gosling, Ed Norton) going all the way back to De Niro if not Brando, then Harrelson has decided to channel Robert Duvall in his Apocalypse Now pomp – tight, spruce, not to be messed with.

And that’s why the film is worth watching, to see two actors more or less playing other actors in a series of tough little scenes of intense emotion, and doing it brilliantly.

The film meanwhile, directed by a debuting Oren Moverman, whose Rampart (Harrelson as a Dirty Harry figure caught out of time) reinforces the idea that there’s a serious bit of 1970s worship going on with its choice of close shots, its human focus, its mood music.

That’s its downside too – that it is a mood piece which starts to wander once it’s established itself. Plot junkies might want to look elsewhere.



Why Watch?


  • The first film by Oren Moverman
  • Foster and Harrelson genuinely work well together
  • Harrelson in Duvall-mode shouts “Charlie don’t surf” at one point
  • Bobby Bukowski’s 1970s cinematography


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Messenger – at Amazon






Woody Harrelson in Rampart


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 March



Rodney King beating caught on camera, 1991

On this day in 1991, one of the inaugural events of the age of citizen journalism occurred after paroled felon Rodney King was stopped by police after a high speed chase and then beaten by five officers. King was drunk and had been trying to outrun the police, knowing that arrest while driving under the influence would mean a violation of his parole and an immediate return to prison. George Holliday’s videotape of the beating of Rodney King was what made the event important. He’d switched his camera on just as police were tasering King for the second time; but it was the fusillade of baton strikes to King’s body as police deployed their “swarm” tactic – standard procedure against an unco-operative subject – that were eye-catching. Though King later sued the city of Los Angeles and was awarded $3.8 million dollars, plus expenses, the trial of the police for the use of excessive force resulted in them being acquitted. Riots broke out in Los Angeles, resulting in the death of 54 people, the arrest of 7,000, and millions of dollars’ worth of damage.




Rampart (2011, dir: Oren Moverman)

Rampart is the story of an old world cop in a new world he doesn’t understand, a Dirty Harry surrounded by diktats of appropriateness and proportionality. It’s also a very nice role for Woody Harrelson who, after playing an inbred hick shooting zombies in one film too many (or does Zombieland just feel like more than one movie?), reminds us that he’s also an actor. Harrelson plays the anachronism who listens to shock jocks, beats up witnesses, intimidates rookie female members of the force, is quite possibly married to a member of his own family (if I’ve got the fact wrong there, then I’m in the right area in spirit). His force nickname is Daterape, enough said. “I am not a racist,” says Rampart, after being hauled in for going a bit Rodney King on a black motorist he’s taken a dislike to. “The fact is I hate all people equally.” These lines appear in some of the most amusing sections of the film, when he’s being questioned by his concerned superiors, in particular Sigourney Weaver, whom he has also taken a dislike to, partly because he resents having a boss, mostly because she’s a woman. He is, in his defence of himself to her, “the one cop who gets it.” This is a cop up to his neck in dirt, in other words, because that’s the way it goes when you work the streets. The strength of Oren Moverman’s film, script by James Ellroy and Moverman, is that it doesn’t utterly condemn Harrelson’s David Brown. We see Brown swaggering on duty and kind of pathetic off duty. Moverman plants us in Brown’s head with his feverish camera movement and livid colours, lifts ambient sound quite high in the mix. We don’t love Brown, but we do understand him; we’re not rooting for him, but we are rooting for him not to get caught. Ned Beatty arrives, adding further weight to the idea that Rampart at some level is a 1970s love-in – but it’s not the timid Beatty of Deliverance, rather a nastier character, there to nudge us that, no, this is not the way police affairs should be conducted, never should have been in fact. Moverman handles his large cast of real pros with skill, though he could be accused of not having read the Don Siegel book of directing – a touch of Dirty Harry economy wouldn’t go amiss. But there’s absolutely no need to have background knowledge of real incidents at Los Angeles’s Rampart division – 70 cops in the anti-gang unit accused of corruption. This film boils it all down for us into the character of one very rancid man.



Why Watch?


  • Woody Harrelson’s great performance
  • A supporting cast that’s just as good – Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster
  • Bobby Bukowski’s urgent cinematography
  • Beautifully done 1970s pastiche


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Rampart – at Amazon